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Fueling Empowerment for San Diego’s Refugees

Meet Jolyana Jirjees of the Chaldean Community Council helping Iraqi refugees assimilate to life in America
Members of Chaldean Community Council in El Cajo, San Diego with DA Summer Stephan and executive director Jolyana Jirjees
Courtesy of DA Summer Stephan

When Jolyana Jirjees fled Iraq in 2012 to escape religious persecution, she didn’t know where to turn. Then 19, with a young child, she had to lean on members of San Diego County’s roughly 60,000-strong Chaldean community for help with everything from learning English to buying baby items. 

“It was really hard to communicate,” she says. “When I got here, I couldn’t even spell my name.” 

Jirjees was eventually pointed toward ESL classes and an adult education program where the determined scholar earned her high school diploma in under a year. She was even asked to give a speech at graduation. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and counseling and a master’s degree in counseling from San Diego State University.

Jolyana Jirjees of San Diego organization Chaldean Community Council holding an award
Courtesy of Jolyana Jirjees

She then turned her attention to other refugees seeking the same type of support she’d sought upon arriving in the U.S. She began working with the Chaldean Community Council three years ago and was recently promoted to its executive director. 

She says she’ll never forget the people who helped her along her journey and is grateful she can do the same for refugees struggling to find their way in a new country. 

“Today, I’m that person,” she says. “I see myself in each person I help.”

The Chaldean Community Council offers social and educational services, like ESL and citizenship classes, and help with finding housing, accessing public benefits, and developing skills to be successful in the job market. Jirjees was essential to expanding the organization and has recently established a program to help refugees and immigrants find health insurance coverage and learn computer literacy.

She is also a source of constant support to those navigating the same challenges she did 12 years ago. She helps people stay motivated to finish school, tips jobseekers off to employment opportunities, and makes house calls just to check in. She even saved a woman from homelessness by letting her stay in her home, then putting her up in a hotel until she got on her feet. Her efforts have provided a lifeline for countless people.

“I believe sometimes just encouraging people makes a difference in their life,” she says. 

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